By Jamie Haynes
The Austin City Council chambers were filled Tuesday night for the planning commission’s “public” meeting; in addition to community advocates and lawyers in expensive suits, supporters of revolutionary organization Defend Our Hoodz (DOH) made their presence known.
As the meeting began, four community members unfurled color posters featuring: Michael Wheelan (Presidium Group lawyer), Fayez Kazi (Planning Commission Chair and founder of Civiltude), David Wallace (Presidium spokesman for the fledgling Riverside Arts District), and Jim Schissler (Planning Commissioner also associated with Civiltude) identifying each as an “Enemy of East Riverside”. Large banners were also revealed with the slogans, “No Domain on Riverside” and “No road through Roy G. Guerrero: Parks for the people, not developers” making their intentions known to the room.
A commissioner tried to keep the room under control but one brave community member boldly refused protocol, continuing to hand out flyers directly on the commissioners’ desks before he was removed by security. On the way out he responded to hecklers by stating, “Four thousand people are losing their homes because of you, tagging on affordable housing we can never afford is adding insult to injury. We are not going to compromise, we will stop the spread of gentrification fever!”
Ten minutes into the meeting, Austin police entered the chambers. Initially, two officers approached one of the protesters holding a sign in the back of the room and began to physically remove them. The remaining community members became agitated and started booing, asking loudly why the commission was trying to silence the public. Within a few minutes the number of cops had swelled to fourteen and they began kicking out everyone holding a sign or banner as well as many audience members.
Photos by Michael Baez
It was clear that the meeting was a complete farce, intended to give this classic case of dispossession a thin veneer of “democracy”.
More than half of the audience got up and left the room willingly to join the protesters outside. Dozens of protesters were banging on the window next to the council dais chanting, “The city process is a sham! We fight back when they steal our land!” in an attempt to further delay the meeting.
About thirty minutes into the meeting, another ten APD officers showed up on bicycles as one protester, who had been detained near the entrance, was loaded into a paddy wagon behind the newly formed bike barricade. As the group of protesters returned to the front of the building, the barricade was reformed in front of the entrance to city hall and activists spent the remainder of the meeting agitating outside the building, providing passersby with information about the developers’ nefarious plans.
Photo by Michael Baez
After community members standing up to the city were kicked out, a sellout politician, Susana Almanza, used her time during Citizen’s Communication to highlight the arrest of an oppressed nation individual. She said that the police only targeted the “Mexican” person (DOH has clarified that the comrade is neither Mexican or Chicano) while leaving ‘white students’ alone who were engaging in the same disruption.
The arrested individual also shared that he heard Almanza ask the police, “There are White and Black people being disruptive too, why aren’t you arresting them as well?” as they detained him.
While it is true that the police generally target oppressed nations, DOH and their supporters have faced state repression across racial and national lines. Almanza’s commentary, while speaking against the arrest of the comrade, still showed an opportunistic use of identity while ignoring the broader repression of revolutionary organizations in Austin.
In one of many speeches made outside the police barricade, one protester shouted passionately, “This show of force against regular people demanding justice for their community will just further prove the illegitimate processes that go on at city hall. They don’t give a fuck about the people that live here, they only care about the money coming in. Developers and city staff are in cahoots, they want to displace poor people, displace the working class… they don’t care about us, the people that actually make the city function.”
Photo by Michael Baez
Protesters remained outside chanting and marching for the entire duration of the discussion related to the rezonings. For the latter part of the meeting as the commission deliberated, their chants could be heard from inside the chambers.
As the discussion neared its end, and the chants continued outside, Commissioner Todd Shaw suggested extending the discussion to their next meeting, but expressed nervousness at, “the potential for another protest.” The acting chair, Conor Kenny, replied that, “maybe we need to maybe pay a little bit of attention to having orderly business,” implying that the police repression wasn’t swift or brutal enough to silence the community to his satisfaction.
Arrests and violent repression at public meetings will continue, as it becomes more and more obvious how the city functions to serve the needs of developers and investors while the working class faces displacement. As expected, the six rezoning amendments all passed the commission’s vote and will move forward for a vote by city council members. While developers have the empty suits of city government and the repressive force of the police on their side, the anti-gentrification movement led by DOH has a more valuable resource that continues to grow day by day: the masses who are emboldened to fight against their displacement and exploitation.